We used to say “You’re entitled to your own opinion, but not to your own facts.” Now we are all entitled to our own facts, and conservative media use this right to immerse their audience in a total environment of pseudo-facts and pretend information.
When contemplating the ruthless brilliance of this system, it’s tempting to fall back on the theory that the GOP is masterminded by a cadre of sinister billionaires, deftly manipulating the political process for their own benefit. The billionaires do exist, and some do indeed attempt to influence the political process. The bizarre fiasco of campaign-finance reform has perversely empowered them to give unlimited funds anonymously to special entities that can spend limitlessly. (Thanks, Senator McCain! Nice job, Senator Feingold!) Yet, for the most part, these Republican billionaires are not acting cynically. They watch Fox News too, and they’re gripped by the same apocalyptic fears as the Republican base. In funding the tea-party movement, they are actually acting against their own longer-term interests, for it is the richest who have the most interest in political stability, which depends upon broad societal agreement that the existing distribution of rewards is fair and reasonable. If the social order comes to seem unjust to large numbers of people, what happens next will make Occupy Wall Street look like a street fair.
Republican billionaires are not acting cynically; they watch Fox News too.
Over the past few years, I have left this alternative knowledge system behind me. What is that experience like? A personal story may be relevant here.
Through the debate over health-care reform in 2009–10, I urged that Republicans try to reach some kind of deal. The Democrats had the votes to pass something. They could not afford to lose. Providing health coverage to all is a worthy goal, and the core mechanisms of what we called Obamacare should not have been obnoxious to Republicans. In fact, they were drawn from past Republican plans. Democrats were so eager for Republican votes to provide bipartisan cover that they might well have paid a substantial price to get them, including dropping the surtaxes on work and investment that supposedly financed the Affordable Care Act. My urgings went unheeded, obviously. Senator Jim DeMint predicted that health care would become Obama’s Waterloo, the decisive defeat that would destroy his presidency, and Republicans accepted DeMint’s counsel. So they bet everything—and lost everything. A major new entitlement has been written into law, financed by redistributive new taxes. Changes in the bill that could have been had for the asking will now require years of slow, painful legislative effort, if they ever come at all. Republicans hope that the Supreme Court will overturn the Affordable Care Act. Such a decision would be the most dramatic assertion of judicial power since the thirties, and for that reason alone seems improbable. Yet absent action by the Supreme Court, outright repeal of President Obama’s health-care law is a mirage, requiring not only 60 votes in the Senate but also the withdrawal of benefits that the American people will have gotten used to by 2013.
On the day of the House vote that ensured the enactment of health-care reform, I wrote a blog post saying all this—and calling for some accountability for those who had led the GOP to this disaster. For my trouble, I was denounced the next day by my former colleagues at The Wall Street Journal as a turncoat. Three days after that, I was dismissed from the American Enterprise Institute. I’m not a solitary case: In 2005, the economist Bruce Bartlett, a main legislative author of the Kemp-Roth tax cut, was fired from a think tank in Dallas for too loudly denouncing the George W. Bush administration’s record, and I could tell equivalent stories about other major conservative think tanks as well.
I don’t complain from a personal point of view. Happily, I had other economic resources to fall back upon. But the message sent to others with less security was clear: We don’t pay you to think, we pay you to repeat. For myself, the main consequences have been more comic than anything else. Back in 2009, I wrote a piece for Newsweek arguing that Republicans would regret conceding so much power to Rush Limbaugh. Until that point, I’d been a frequent guest on Fox News, but thenceforward some kind of fatwa was laid down upon me. Over the next few months, I’d occasionally receive morning calls from young TV bookers asking if I was available to appear that day. For sport, I’d always answer, “I’m available—but does your senior producer know you’ve called me?” An hour later, I’d receive an embarrassed second call: “We’ve decided to go in a different direction.” Earlier this year, I did some volunteer speechwriting for a Republican contemplating a presidential run. My involvement was treated as a dangerous secret, involving discreet visits to hotel suites at odd hours. Thus are political movements held together. But thus is not how movements grow and govern.